Acceptance of the Other: How Interfaith Dialogue Has Helped One Community Come to Life Again

By Kathryn Kraft

When she stood up from the little stool on which she had been perched throughout our interview, I saw that she was indeed pregnant. I’d guess about seven months. But, I thought, she already had seven children, a sunken eye, and a lost home!

I wondered if she wanted this baby or if her husband wanted this baby or if she was unfamiliar with the concept of contraception. My mind wandered to my London existence, where the norm is to choose if and when to become pregnant and where few people have more than three kids. And in London we can access free prenatal, neonatal and paediatric care, assistance with childcare and then free primary education.

This woman had none of these things, and the contrast between her existence and mine somehow to me summarised so well the stark reality of her story and that of her community. An ethnic and religious minority, displaced from her home. But like me in her energy and will to make a life for herself and her family.

She is a Peul, otherwise known as Fulani. Ethnically Muslim, the Peul are a nomadic people of West Africa. She is living in a camp in the town of Ombela* for internally displaced Peuls who had to flee their town in 2013, when all-out civil war broke out in the Central African Republic (CAR). With a pre-war population of 5.5 million, CAR may not be very big, but it by its very name is central in Africa, bordering 6 other nations: Cameroon, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Sudan and Chad. It is also the lowest-ranked country on the Human Development Index.

Launching a war that has barely grazed the media screens of the world, the nation rapidly disintegrated into fighting in 2013. The political origins of the dispute are complex, but while most critics agree that it is not religiously motivated, the violence has led to a breakdown in social cohesion between Christians and Muslims. Many argue that religion has been instrumentalised to promote division. One faction, the Seleka, took on a distinctly Muslim identity and managed to mobilise many of the country’s Muslims to join them; while another faction, the anti-Balaka, did the same with Christians.

Entire towns were emptied as violence spread like wildfire across the country. When the dust began to settle in Ombela, many of the town’s Christians returned home while the Muslim minority no longer felt safe. We were told that most of the previous Muslim residents are now living as refugees in Cameroon.

But Peuls from other parts of the country sought refuge in Ombela. The city administrator gave them a few houses to occupy, little better than an enclave, then eventually World Vision built some temporary houses for them on land near to a church.

It is not coincidence that the land where they now live is close to a church.

Even though these 650 souls came to Ombela to flee the violence, they are nonetheless Muslim. So it was for their own safety that they were segregated in the enclave. The city’s Christians were angry and hurt and armed, and it was entirely possible that they may take out their frustration on their new Peul neighbours. After all, some of their former Peul neighbours had joined the very militias that had attacked their town.

So when World Vision told the mayor’s office that they would help this Peul community CAR 2settle into the town, it wasn’t enough to just build them houses. They had to somehow find a way for Ombela’s citizens accept their presence in the community. They did this by beginning a series of activities for interfaith dialogue. A priest preached to the Catholics and a network of pastors preached to the Protestants about loving your neighbour, helping the less fortunate and working for peace. The Christian leaders then set an example for their congregants by visiting with the Peul Imam and bringing members of their congregations to meet the residents of the Peul camp.

Now, displaced Peul children attend school with Ombela’s children, their parents shop in the same markets, and humanitarian activities are conducted jointly with both communities. They may be displaced, but life goes on.

Rebuilding their lives is difficult, though. Very few Peul can work. They are pastoralists by trade and culture, but they lost all their livestock when they left their hometown. They arrived with nothing and live on humanitarian aid. They are accepted and tolerated, but they still live on a little hill tucked away from the rest of the town.

The woman I met who was pregnant would like to start making soap to sell. But first she needs start-up funds to buy her lye and oils.

Several of the men with whom I met are eager to start tending livestock again. One man has managed to generate a bit of income by offering butchery services, but the fact is that this Ramadan, the residents of this camp are mostly going hungry when they should be breaking the fast.

Still, they insist that they are not isolated, that they are accepted, and that they are active. They go into town regularly and, if there is no work to do, nor money for shopping, they just chat with shopkeepers or other people in the market. One man explained that they do that because they are pastoralists – culturally incapable of sitting still! They still hope to find work, though – both the women and the men.

In the meantime, though, they keep living as best they can, having babies, visiting the market and making Christian friends, sending their kids to school, and keeping their faith alive.

*The name of the town has been changed for security purposes.

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